Ahab the Inept.

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2013-04-21 by Jeremy Clarke

Preacher: Christopher Adams
21st April 2013
Readings: 1 Kings 20:13-14, 26-34, 37-43, 1 Kings 22:6-28
(referenced/quoted later in sermon)

I had a moment of panic last week when I saw that Lois was preaching from 1 Kings. Earlier last Sunday morning, having checked the church schedule in the timely manner that I do, and having realized I was set to preach the next week, I hurriedly scanned through the Bible. The problem, of course, with preaching on ‘hidden voices’ is that the voices are difficult to find, but I thought at least somewhere in the Old Testament, buried under all those genealogical tables, would be something interesting. So I stumbled into 1 Kings. Imagine my panic, then, when Lois starting speaking about hidden voices—voices hidden, as it turns out, in 1 Kings. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending, presented for you here today, as I’m preaching from 1 Kings 20 — one chapter later.

I’d like to talk today about one of the Bible’s true villains: Ahab. 1 Kings 21: 25-26 takes the trouble to inform us, in case we didn’t get the picture already, that: “There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord…He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols…”. He’s not exactly a ‘hidden voice’, since his story takes up several chapters of 1 Kings and Chronicles. His story overlaps with Elijah’s, and in this way he is the main antagonist in the Elijah story — Elijah always seems to be doing something in response to what Ahab has decreed.

But still, there’s something about Ahab that feels overshadowed. If he’s one of the great arch-villains of the Old Testament, he’s not a very gifted one. One of the Biblical commentaries online notes that “There are those on whom, like Ahab, success is ill bestowed; they know not how to serve either God or their generation, or even their own true interests with their prosperity”. In other words, Ahab seems to be one of those guys who, for no particular reason, was generally inept — nothing went his way. And of course there’s the fact that he was married to Jezebel, who became far more notorious than he, her name a byword in several languages, and also now the name of a prominent fashion blog. And what’s Ahab got? Fashion blogs? Infamy? No — just a character name in an egregiously tiresome Melville novel who gets caught in some rope and drowned by a whale.

I’d like to look at Ahab, and the prophets he interacts with, today, because it seems that Ahab has great difficulty in hearing and discerning the voice of God. I suspect that we, too, suffer this difficulty from time to time — times in which it is God’s voice that is the ‘hidden voice’.

I’d like to look at two passages today, both from 1 Kings. They are both stories about Ahab, and both feature interaction with prophets. In the second passage the prophet is named, though in the first passage the prophet remains unnamed — that being said, there is some evidence that the two prophets referred to in these passages are in fact one and the same person.

In the first passage, Ben-Hadad, king of the Arameans, has prepared to attack Israel. At the eleventh hour, a prophet turns up and has the following exchange with Ahab:

1 Kings 20:13-14

13 Meanwhile a prophet came to Ahab king of Israel and announced, “This is what the Lord says: “Do you see this vast army? I will give it into your hand today, and then you will know that I am the Lord.”
14 “But who will do this?” asked Ahab.
The prophet replied, “This is what the Lord says: “The junior officers under the provincial commanders will do it.’”
“And who will start the battle?” he asked.
The prophet answered, “You will.”

So all’s well. Ahab attacks in the manner described and is victorious. The next springtime, Ben-Hadad tries his luck again. Here’s the story:

1 Kings 20:26-34

26 The next spring Ben-Hadad mustered the Arameans and went up to Aphek to fight against Israel.
27 When the Israelites were also mustered and given provisions, they marched out to meet them. The Israelites camped opposite them like two small flocks of goats, while the Arameans covered the countryside.
28 The man of God came up and told the king of Israel, “This is what the Lord says: “Because the Arameans think the Lord is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the Lord.”
29 For seven days they camped opposite each other, and on the seventh day the battle was joined. The Israelites inflicted a hundred thousand casualties on the Aramean foot soldiers in one day. 30 The rest of them escaped to the city of Aphek, where the wall collapsed on twenty-seven thousand of them. And Ben-Hadad fled to the city and hid in an inner room.
31 His officials said to him, “Look, we have heard that the kings of Israel are merciful. Let us go to the king of Israel with sackcloth around our waists and ropes around our heads. Perhaps he will spare your life.”
32 Wearing sackcloth around their waists and ropes around their heads, they went to the king of Israel and said, “Your servant Ben-Hadad says: ‘Please let me live.”
The king answered, “Is he still alive? He is my brother.”
33 The men took this as a good sign and were quick to pick up his word. “Yes, your brother Ben-Hadad!” they said.
“Go and get him,” the king said. When Ben-Hadad came out, Ahab had him come up into his chariot.
34 “I will return the cities my father took from your father,” Ben-Hadad offered. “You may set up your own market areas in Damascus, as my father did in Samaria.”
Ahab said, “On the basis of a treaty I will set you free.” So he made a treaty with him, and let him go.

If I were Ahab, I’d be feeling pretty good about myself at this moment. I’d defeated my enemy, been gracious enough to spare his life, and settled a treaty that bettered the economic interests of my nation. But here’s what happens next:

1 Kings 20:37-43

37 The prophet found another man and said, “Strike me, please.” So the man struck him and wounded him.
38 Then the prophet went and stood by the road waiting for the king. He disguised himself with his headband down over his eyes.
39 As the king passed by, the prophet called out to him, “Your servant went into the thick of the battle, and someone came to me with a captive and said, “Guard this man. If he is missing, it will be your life for his life, or you must pay a talent[b] of silver.” 40 While your servant was busy here and there, the man disappeared.”
“That is your sentence,” the king of Israel said. “You have pronounced it yourself.”
41 Then the prophet quickly removed the headband from his eyes, and the king of Israel recognized him as one of the prophets.
42 He said to the king, “This is what the Lord says: “You have set free a man I had determined should die.
 Therefore it is your life for his life, your people for his people.”
43 Sullen and angry, the king of Israel went to his palace in Samaria.

Can you imagine what Ahab must have felt? He’s been pestered by prophets his entire kingship, and there he is, fresh from victory, going down the road. He even deigns to turn around and have a conversation with the guy on the road and then — Bam! — the prophet cleverly whisks off his headband ‘disguise’, reads him a somewhat convoluted lesson, tells him his act of mercy and brilliant political maneuvering has been a joke and he should’ve killed the guy instead, and then informs him that because of all this, his life is forfeit. Didn’t just last year a prophet of God come to Ahab and tell him specifically what he should do?

So yeah, no wonder Ahab goes back to his palace “sullen and angry” (the KJV says “heavy and displeased”). God, in these passages, is frustratingly unclear. He comes across as warped, manipulative, saying one thing to Ahab in all clarity, only to omit key details, for which He then holds Ahab responsible. He seems to expect Ahab to read His mind, as if Ahab, or any of us, were capable of ‘reading’ the mind of God. God has bloodlust, and is decidedly not a pacifist. The note to verse 42, in which the prophet explains that Ben-Hadad had been determined by God “to die”, states that it wasn’t just that Ben-Hadad was “to die”: the word for ‘to die’ means being given irrevocably over to the Lord, “often by being totally destroyed”. God, in this passage, seeks not just death, but annihilation.

Hearing sermons on this, or similar passages, in the past, I’m often amazed at how preachers do clever acrobatics to leap around the text. A standard commentary on this passage is to draw a moral lesson — God requires whole-hearted sacrifice. There is no use negotiating with our sin (here, represented by Ben-Hadad) — God requires us to completely give up whatever He’s asking us to give up. And woe betide us if we linger or show mercy to evil. But that’s a bit rich, isn’t it? There’s a difference — I mean, I hope there’s a difference — between, say turning the heat down in your home because God’s been convicting you about energy use and the heater’s environmental impact — or throwing away your collection of rap music (I know someone who did that because he felt God was telling him to) — and turning over a human prisoner who is begging for mercy to be brutally sacrificed / murdered to appease the whim of a mysteriously fickle god. So, yeah — if I were Ahab, I’d be sullen. I’d be heavy. I’d be seriously displeased.

In the story we are now going to turn — and this is the final passage we’ll have read — to yet another spring, three years later. Johoshaphat the king of Judah, has just come to see his ally Ahab, the king of Israel to ask if they should go to war against Aram again, this time to reclaim the land of Ramoth Gilead. Having learnt his lesson, Ahab decides to consult the prophets:

1 Kings 22:6-28

6 So the king of Israel brought together the prophets — about four hundred men — and asked them, “Shall I go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall I refrain?”
“Go,” they answered, “for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.”
7 But Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there no longer a prophet of the Lord here whom we can inquire of?”
8 The king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, “There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.”
9 So the king of Israel called one of his officials and said, “Bring Micaiah son of Imlah at once.”
10 Dressed in their royal robes, the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat king of Judah were sitting on their thrones at the threshing floor by the entrance of the gate of Samaria, with all the prophets prophesying before them.
11 Now Zedekiah son of Kenaanah had made iron horns and he declared, “This is what the Lord says: “With these you will gore the Arameans until they are destroyed.”
12 All the other prophets were prophesying the same thing. “Attack Ramoth Gilead and be victorious,” they said, “for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.”
13 The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, “Look, the other prophets without exception are predicting success for the king. Let your word agree with theirs, and speak favorably.”
14 But Micaiah said, “As surely as the Lord lives, I can tell him only what the Lord tells me.”
15 When he arrived, the king asked him, “Micaiah, shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or not?”
“Attack and be victorious,” he answered, “for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.”
16 The king said to him, “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?”
17 Then Micaiah answered, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the Lord said, “These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace.”
18 The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Didn’t I tell you that he never prophesies anything good about me, but only bad?”
19 Micaiah continued, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. 20 And the Lord said, “Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?” One suggested this, and another that.
21 Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, “I will entice him.”
22 “”By what means?” the Lord asked.
“I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,” he said.
“You will succeed in enticing him,” said the Lord. “Go and do it.”
23 “So now the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The Lord has decreed disaster for you.”
24 Then Zedekiah son of Kenaanah went up and slapped Micaiah in the face. “Which way did the spirit from the Lord go when he went from me to speak to you?” he asked.
25 Micaiah replied, “You will find out on the day you go to hide in an inner room.”
26 The king of Israel then ordered, “Take Micaiah and send him back to Amon the ruler of the city and to Joash the king’s son
27 and say, “This is what the king says: Put this fellow in prison and give him nothing but bread and water until I return safely.”
28 Micaiah declared, “If you ever return safely, the Lord has not spoken through me.” Then he added, “Mark my words, all you people!”

What we’ve just heard is a strange, confusing passage. If these characters were in a play, I’d seriously question the playwright’s ability to create logical character motivations. At first Ahab is on board with the idea of calling in the prophet he doesn’t like. But when Micaiah (whose name, incidentally, sounds like a confusing mash-up of Micah and Isaiah) arrives, Micaiah won’t tell him the truth. But then Micaiah does tell him the truth, but now Ahab doesn’t want to hear it. Then Micaiah pulls out a vision of deceiving spirits, accuses all of the other prophets of being false prophets, and Ahab has him locked away. Even though we have the benefit of hindsight — the scripture later tells us that things came to pass more or less as the prophet spoke them — how was Ahab to know in the moment that that was the correct voice to listen to?

What are we to make of such a story? How are we supposed to distinguish the voice of the prophet from the voice of the prophets, whom the first prophet call false, and, since this is a written text after all, how are we to separate all of this from the voice of the narrator? How is Ahab to know what to believe? How is he or we to know who is speaking truthfully? What happens when the voice is too hidden — too confusing? And why is it this way?

A few observations. First, it appears difficult for Ahab to do anything correct and to hear the voice of God, because the larger structures are not in place to do so. The society around him is consumed with constant warfare. Ahab himself is an inciter of violence. I was discussing this passage with Wayne and Lois yesterday, and Wayne pointed out that Ahab struck him as a man who lacked a firm grounding, a man who was the subject of other peoples’ (advisers, kings) influence and objectives, rather than the subjector of them. In the space of three chapters, Ahab consults with two separate individual prophets, his collective of 400 prophets, the king of Judah, and, in a passage not read, with his wife Jezebel. Unlike, say, King David, who is recorded as having a personal, listening interaction with God, for Ahab, hearing the voice of God is all about facing the gaggle of voices around him. One wonders if Ahab himself even knew what the voice of God sounded like. Perhaps he did. Perhaps it was a distant memory. Perhaps he no longer cared. With so many voices telling him so many contradictory things, he seems to lack an inner well, an inner bank of personal experience to draw upon in judging who is speaking correctly.

This is not to say that everything is Ahab’s fault. I’m particularly suspicious of the prophets — ‘true’ and ‘false’ — who appear in these passages. They come across as real drama queens, complete with costumes and dramatic flourishes. They are morbidly self-righteous, predicting, and causing, doom to those who disagree with them. When Micaiah first appears, he tells Ahab to attack. And then he says the exact opposite two sentences later. His accusation of a deceiving spirit is classic “blame the enemy” — approaching hysteria. He may, in the end, be right — Ahab shouldn’t have gone ahead with the attack — but the way he goes about it is not effective. How do we, as we aim for truth in the face of power, approach our task: shrilly, like Micaiah? or peacefully like — well, there’s not an example in the passage. It is possible to see Micaiah as the hero of the passage, bravely speaking the truth in the face of opposition, but I don’t find him so. His voice resounds and reverberates, but it does not effect. It is, in the words of Paul, a resounding cymbal.

That, I think, is indicative of the whole passage, the whole situation. A lot of people talking. Sound and fury — voices, sounds of battle, sounds of pleading, activity, prophesying, shouting, anger. If God was not, as we heard last week, in the fire, or in the storm, or in the earthquake — how would we expect him to be in the clamour?

To conclude: as a church where we believe God speaks through the interaction with and the voices of the community, let us consider stillness. Silence. So that the sometimes hidden, quiet voice of God may not be drowned out.

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